When Christophe Adams, 38, moved into his fully accessible, one-bedroom unit at the just-opened Grove Apartments in Oak Park, no one had to tell him twice that he was now home.
Four years ago Adams suffered a spinal stroke, which left him partially paralyzed. Since then he has lived in two local nursing homes and then an Oak Park condo that was not built to be accessible for a person with his disabilities.
"I was in one rehab place and then another one, and they were not feeding me well or giving me any rehab whatsoever, so," he says, "when the Progress Center gave me an application for (the Grove Apartments), my aunt kept saying, 'you should sign up, you should sign up' I finally did."
Adams moved in to The Grove Apartments, previously the Comcast cable TV headquarters and, in its development phase a controversial affordable housing project, just last week.
As a participant in the "Money Follows the Person Demonstration Program," which is administered by the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, Adams says he did win a lottery when he was chosen as one of 12 individuals with disabilities to reside in one of the 12 fully accessible units here.
Edward Solan is CEO of the Oak Park Residence Corporation, one of the key backers of the project. He says for individuals such as Adams, who describes himself as a paraplegic, that the Grove Apartments are a strong match. Many of the applicants with disabilities "are being referred to us by the State of Illinois, and are people who wanted to move out of a nursing home, and because of a referral through the State of Illinois system, are living at Grove Apartments now," says Solan.
The remaining 39 units at Madison Street and Grove will be occupied by a diverse mix of single adults, and some single parents with one child under the age of eighteen, thanks to the Regional Housing Initiative, a program that provides housing vouchers to qualified applicants, says Solan.
"A consortium of local housing authorities in Northeastern Illinois have put together a program for people to live in areas with good access to transportation, jobs, good schools, " Solan says. "We don't have the final resident list yet, as there are still some units being filled. But, we do know that the remaining two-thirds of the units will be filled by people who have lived somewhere else in Oak Park, or have worked in Oak Park at least 20 hours per week, because that is one of the criteria we set -- living or working here."
Solan, who recently announced his retirement from the Housing Authority, anticipates that the apartment complex will be fully occupied by early December, if not a little sooner.
Not in my neighborhood
Solan acknowledges the strong, initial opposition to the project three years back by its immediate neighbors who were critical of the affordable housing aspects of the plan. A series of heated public meetings followed. In the end, with strong support from Oak Park's village government, the collaborative effort between the Interfaith Housing Development Corporation and the Oak Park Housing Authority was approved. Partnering with them, says Solan, has been the Oak Park Residence Corporation, the building's manager; Catholic Charities, the onsite case management and service linkage provider; plus other local nonprofits, including Progress Center for Independent Living in Forest Park.
"We have been able to deliver what we said we would deliver," says Solan regarding the project's controversial start. "Time will tell, but I am optimistic that our residents will move seamlessly into the neighborhood."
In the meantime, a floor down from Adams, Stacy Collier, 53, has moved in. She is still unpacking boxes, but has put her large collection of refrigerator magnets on display in her new kitchen, a homey touch.
"I was in living in an apartment on north Austin (Blvd.), the heat was not good, and I am severely asthmatic, and stuff like that. It was just too cold for me. I just needed a better place. I heard about Grove Apartments in the newspaper and thought it would be good for me. As soon as I applied, Stephen [Dewhite, the site manager] called me. They inspected my apartment, and then everything happened so fast. I thought it must have been there for me," Collier says with emotion in her voice. "When I got to Grove, I felt like I am at home, and that really makes me feel good."
To walk-through the totally renovated and expanded building is to take in a space that is big, bright, clean, rich in amenities -- what Solan calls a state-of-the-art, LEED certified building. It features a geo-thermal heating and cooling system; ample parking spots for tenants, plus access to two I-Go cars; first floor storage areas for tenants; and a large community room, with nearby kitchen. He hopes both tenants and neighborhood residents will use those spaces for activities and meetings.
"[Before Comcast], this used to be a car dealership, and they used to park cars on all the floors, including the rooftop, so the architect built to massive scale, with huge columns to make sure the building could stand up to weight," Solan says. "One of the things that the current architect had to do is work around the existing windows because we didn't want to change the character on the outside of the building, so we had to line up the units with the windows."
On each of the three residential floors are 17 one-bedroom units, varying in configuration and size between 425 to 475 square feet, with four of the units on each floor being fully accessible for individuals with disabilities. Nearby is a communal laundry room, one per floor, that is particularly convenient for people who use wheelchairs, "so they don't have to schlep their laundry all over," he says.
Still being built-out is 5,200 square feet of commercial and retail space on the first floor that was required under village zoning.
Eight days in, Adams says he has already cooked his first meatless meal, is pretty much settled in, with "just a little bit of this and that left to do."
"I have a piece of African Kente cloth I am going to hang over there, and I want to get a nice shelf on the wall here to put my old tribal clay pot so I can see it all the time [from the bed]. Sometimes I go to the library, or maybe Whole Foods in River Forest to buy cereals," he says, pointing to what he calls his power chair. "I can hop in my chair and I will be there before you know it."
Today, he is off to the Brown Elephant resale shop in the Harrison Street Arts District to possibly purchase a new jacket, and some 50 cent magazines.
"I am also looking for a nice '70s lamp, because I like retro," he says laughing.
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